Wellness Story

Back to Wellness Stories

Creativity Helps Cafeteria’s Bottom Line

School food changes course

In 2010 Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act to ensure that students in America’s schools have access to the nutrition they need to grow into healthy adults. The law addressed both foods served as part of the National School Lunch Program, and foods sold throughout the school building, such as in school stores, during in-school fundraisers, and in vending machines (often called competitive foods).

During the 2012–2013 school year, schools across the country aligned their school meals with new federal standards to ensure kids are being fed healthy food at school. And as a result of the USDA’s Smart Snacks in School nutrition standards that went into effect July 1 for the 2014–15 school year, more schools across America are offering healthier snacks and beverages.

The Alliance for a Healthier Generation has been working with schools to implement nutrition standards for school snacks and drinks since 2006, which helped inform USDA’s updated standards. Many schools participating in the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s Healthy Schools Program, such as those in Hoover City School District in Hoover, Alabama have found that students are more than willing to buy and eat healthier foods and beverages.

A recipe for improvement

Melinda Bonner is the child nutrition program director for Hoover City School District, a position she assumed when the previous director, Susan Wood, retired. Wood helped to put Hoover City at the head of the pack by pushing for healthier options in advance of federal regulations. Bonner is picking up right where her predecessor left off, helping her district rise to new heights. “The Alliance standards for snacks and beverages fundamentally got our district accustomed to what was coming so that our students didn’t see a drastic change come July 1,” she said.

Hoover City serves more than 13,000 students from kindergarten through grade 12. Making changes to school meals for such a large population required clear communication and a touch of creativity.

The district began implementing nutrition education in the classroom, encouraging students to share what they were learning at school with their parents. Wood and Bonner thought that if students understood why it was important to make healthier choices, they would be more accepting of the school’s changes. And they were right; Bonner says, “I believe that we are really getting that buy-in from the kids.” She also reaches out to parents through social media. “We have an app for our parents to view our menus. If they know exactly what is on the menu, then they’ll be more likely to encourage their students to eat,” she said.

The cafeteria staff observed student preferences to get ideas about how to improve school menus. For example, they noticed that students chose vegetarian pizza toppings more frequently than meat. In January 2013, Bonner and her staff rolled out Meatless Mondays during breakfast and lunch. “I felt like we should take the opportunity to provide nutrition education and say, ‘hey this is a healthy thing to do for the rest of your life,’” she said. “Choose one day and go meatless.”

Working with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation has helped Hoover City Schools increase the availability of healthier options at school. “The Alliance’s Product Calculator for Smart Snacks looks at calories, sodium, sugar content – and we’re seeing that we’re able to offer more variety,” said Bonner. “That could also be because manufacturers are putting more products out there that meet the standards,” she added. New a la carte items that are popular include popcorn, Greek yogurt, string cheese, and whole grain crackers.

Bonner encourages other districts to find creative ways to encourage healthy habits. During 2014 National School Lunch Week, football players from the high school served lunch to elementary students to align with the “Get in the Game” theme. When the football players asked if students wanted carrots with their lunches, Bonner said, “Every student took carrots! They had to make more!”

A snapshot of success

Through Bonner’s creative approaches, her district has been able to maintain its bottom line, despite a slight drop in school meal participation. “Even if they bring their lunch, they’re buying a bottle of water. The high school students are buying Greek yogurt or some of these new products. A lot of it is marketing what’s new,” she said.

And in the three elementary schools that now serve healthy breakfasts in the classroom, teachers are reporting fewer absences, less tardiness, and less frequent trips to the nurse’s office.

In 2014, Alabama adopted the USDA’s Smart Snacks in School standards for all schools. Bonner was part of a state-wide nutrition task force to ensure the standards were adopted to send a clear, consistent message about the importance of building healthy environments for Alabama’s students. “We hear all the time about students tasting kale or brussels sprouts for the first time. They may not have access to those types of foods [at home]. We can establish those life-long healthy habits at school,” she said.

Your school can also work towards building a healthier environment for you students by joining the Alliance’s Healthy Schools Program. Sign up now!

Download the story (PDF)
One-page Snapshot of Success (PDF)